Saturday, December 12, 2015

Collector's Edition Excerpt #13: Sinatra

Actually, this is a little bit more than an excerpt, I'm doing something unprecedented here (and not just because this damn thing has lain fallow for so long it's getting moldy). I'm posting Chapter 13 of COLLECTOR'S EDITION in its entirety. But there's a reason. Today, Saturday, December 12th, 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the single greatest singer in the history of popular music, and one of my pop culture touchstones: Francis Albert Sinatra.

As you'll see in the chapter, I didn't always feel that way. I was a wee bit late to the game. And if you haven't had the Sinatra epiphany yet, don't worry... it'll happen. Because as much as I bow to subjectivity in almost every aspect of culture, high and low, I am resolute in my belief that if you don't get Frank, it's not that you're immune... it just ain't happened yet.

As I post this, it's just after midnight marking the anniversary, and I'm sipping some whiskey and listening to Frank and tapping my foot and singing along and probably annoying the neighbors in my paper-thin-walled apartment. But I don't care. Happy Birthday, Mr. Sinatra. Thank you for an unprecedented and unparalleled catalogue in the history of recorded music.

Chapter 13
(on an obsession with Frank Sinatra)

As a rule, we’re most passionate about culture that is contemporary. Whether it’s TV shows, movies, or comics, we tend to bond deepest with things that are products of our time . That especially goes for music. Every generation thinks that the music of its youth is way better than whatever crap either their parents or “these kids today” are listening to. I know that I’m pretty fervent in my belief that—all due respect to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire (I guess)—the Clash is the greatest rock band of all time.

Exceptions usually come about when someone develops a passion for a genre that creatively and commercially peaked in the past. Rockabilly cats and kittens find everything recorded post-1962 to be derivative at best. Jazz aficionados mostly gravitate towards the sides recorded somewhere between Louis Armstrong and His Hot Fives’ 78s and Miles Davis’ 1970 double LP, Bitches Brew. And fans of pop vocals who think that Michael BublĂ© is in the same league as Frank Sinatra had best not voice said opinion in front of me.

Obviously, I didn’t buy Come Fly With Me when it was a new release (January of 1958, just shy of seven years before my birth), but my love for the music of Frank Sinatra is as great as my love for that of the Clash. I own darn near everything the man ever recorded (some albums in multiple formats). I’m certainly not alone in the opinion that his take on the great American songbook remains and will always remain unrivaled.

Even though my parents had a dozen or so Sinatra LPs in their small record collection, I don’t ever recall hearing them when I was a kid. If Strangers in the Night ever got a spin on the Magnavox while I was playing with my Megos, the maturity of the recordings flew right over my wee head. And, since Frank’s holiday songs were never licensed for the Christmas compilations we played non-stop during the holidays, I remained unfamiliar with his seasonal catalogue as well.

I remained ignorant of Sinatra until I was well into my 20s. Even after I’d begun to develop an interest in big band, jazz, and pop vocals, I still somehow remained resistant to this artist who crossed all three genres. For whatever reason, I bought into the dismissive stereotype that Frank was nothing but a mob-connected crooner who had lost all relevance long ago. But my assistant at BBC Records, Rex felt otherwise. He grew up hearing Frank, and in 1989, insisted that we carry his Capitol Christmas CD amongst our small selection of holiday fare.

And while I jokingly catalogued the CD as A Merry Mafia Christmas, kidding Rex about his affinity for ol’ Blue Eyes, after a few in-store plays, my resistance began to wear. After all, within the context of holiday music, I was a lifelong fan of Steve Lawrence & Eydie GormĂ© and Jack Jones, so why not give their acknowledged leader a chance?

In 1990, The Capitol Years collected three discs of the best of Frank’s work from that most significant era of his catalogue. Rex ordered a copy for himself, and, apparently softened up by the Christmas CD the previous year, I asked him if I could borrow the set to make a compilation of some of the songs.

I brought the CDs and a new blank tape home with me and plopped on the floor in front of the stereo in the living room. I began going through the collection while perusing the 68-page booklet, listening to each song in its entirety before deciding whether or not to record it onto the 100-minute cassette that I thought would be sufficient to hold my Sinatra collection.

But somewhere in the midst of disc 1, track 23, a Nelson Riddle-arranged 1956 recording of a then-20 year-old Cole Porter tune, my life changed forever. The song was “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and as it reached its crescendo, I cranked up the volume and literally—literally—got a dizzying head rush and realized I was experiencing sheer, pure, sonic perfection, maybe the greatest example of musical symbiosis between song and singer I had ever heard.

I instantly knew 100 minutes weren’t going to be enough. I ordered a copy of The Capitol Years for myself and began accumulating Frank’s catalogue from the previous and subsequent eras as well. I became well versed in Sinatra’s big band period with Harry James and then Tommy Dorsey, his years at Columbia, Capitol, and Reprise Records, all of which have a distinct sound from the other and make the Voice (as Frank was known when he was wooing the bobby soxers in the ‘40s) one of the only artists with music that fits any and every mood.

Feeling cuddly and romantic? Pop on Songs by Sinatra or a compilation of something from his Columbia years (1946-50). The warmth of Frank’s Bing Crosby-influenced baritone is amplified by the inherent limitations of vacuum tube recording technology of the time, which couldn’t capture high end or minute detail (imagine trying to draw a really thin line with a fat marker). The resultant cozy, fuzzy sound is perfectly suited to songs like “Embraceable You” or “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance.”

Feeling like the world is your oyster? Throwing a party? Time for one of Frank’s belting Capitol discs (1954-61) like Songs for Swingin’ Lovers or Come Fly with Me. There’s really nothing to hate here. Frank’s interpretations of songs such as “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “All of Me” and “How Little It Matters (How Little We Know)” are perhaps the greatest sonic personification of confident, masculine cool in history.

Just got dumped? No music in the world will help more than Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely or No One Cares. Frank imbues songs such as “One for My Baby (and One for the Road)” and “Just Friends” with a personal intensity that every other torch singer past and present can only dream of emulating. Because even the coolest guys get their hearts broken now and then.

Caught in the pangs of wistful nostalgia? Feeling like the world is passing you by? The weathered maturity of Sinatra’s Reprise era (1961-81) goes perfectly with a smoky tumbler of aged whiskey. September of My Years and Strangers in the Night both feature examples of the periodic song and performance missteps that came later in Frank’s career, but their damage is more than mitigated by such perfect recordings as “The Summer Wind” and “It Was a Very Good Year.”

As the ‘90s got under way and I began to feel older and more mature (becoming wedded in 1992), Sinatra and his ilk began to suit my state of mind more and more. Especially as I was not a fan of most of what the grunge era had to offer to alternative rock, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, and Dinah Washington (as well as Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, et al) and especially Frank began to supplant contemporary rock as my most listened to music.

I continued to build my collection, on both CD and vinyl , eventually completing Frank’s official catalogue. I listened to Sinatra at home, in the car, and at work. When I expanded BBC’s area of specialization to include jazz, I allowed for pop vocals to squeeze under that rather large umbrella, and so we stocked a couple dozen Sinatra titles. It was lots and lots of Frank.

…Especially after my marriage ended. But now it was more “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” than “High Hopes.” Few things helped in that transitional time more than the catharsis of Sinatra’s sadder sides. Oh, and gin. Gin helped, too .

About a month after my wife and I separated, Nancy Sinatra came to town. It was May 11, 1995, and Frank’s nearly as iconic daughter was performing with her frequent creative partner, Lee Hazlewood at the Chameleon Club. This also happened to be the same month that the then-54 year-old Nancy was the subject of a nude pictorial in Playboy Magazine (and yes, I bought it).

When I arrived at the club, Steve, the lighting designer, told me that Nancy’s assistant, Amanda, had just flown in from California to join the tour, and that she was really cute. Steve described the girl to me, and when I saw her at the bar, I introduced myself and launched into a gushing diatribe about how great it was to have such an icon at the club, and how much I loved the work of Nancy’s father, and bla bla bla… My flirtation wasn’t wholly rejected, but I didn’t think Amanda was interested, so I bought her a drink and made my way towards the stage area.

Sadly, the show was rather poorly attended, with only about a hundred people gathered in the cavernous space, waiting for the ‘60s hits like “You Only Live Twice,” “Sugartown,” and of course, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” between the more recent and lesser known tunes.

As I stood there, Amanda walked up and toasted me with her beer, joining me as I leaned against the short wall that surrounded the dance floor. Hm, maybe she is interested, I thought to myself as Nancy began talking about life on the road in the ‘90s compared with the ‘60s. And then Nancy said something about the biggest difference being that she had kids, and that they were older, and that her younger daughter, Amanda was even on the road with her.


I had been flirting with Frank Sinatra’s granddaughter. And as if that weren’t enough to give me visions of the aged—yet no doubt still far more virile than I—singer putting me in a chokehold, the next day I did a little research and found out that Amanda was 17 years old. Not only had I flirted with this teenage offspring of pop culture royalty, I illegally gave her a drink.

The following year, when I moved away from Lancaster with my friend and fellow Frankiephile, Rob, it felt somehow fitting that we ended up in Sinatra’s hometown of Hoboken NJ. The Chairman himself lost affinity for the town that whelped him, but in a way, that animus actually helps to keep Hoboken’s civic pride in its most famous son at a tolerable level. The signs at the edges of town proclaim, “Welcome to Hoboken, birthplace of Baseball and Frank Sinatra.”  There’s a plaque on the sidewalk outside of the house where the Sinatras lived. The road that loops along the Hudson River on the east side of town is called Sinatra Drive. And a couple of stores and restaurants have some Frank-related memorabilia. But that’s about it; there’s not statue, there’s no Frank music blaring from speakers outside of City Hall. Oh, there are still a few real old-timers who will regale you with stories of knowing / liking / dating / hating the skinny wannabe crooner in the 1930s, but they are not so slowly dying off, along with much of what made the mile-square town the perfect, rough and tumble setting for On the Waterfront.

Within a few months of moving to Hoboken, I started working for the label that Frank Sinatra founded in 1960. Aggravated by the lack of creative freedom he felt at Columbia and Capitol, Frank formed Reprise Records, where he and his Rat Pack pals (among other performers) could make whatever kind of music they wanted. Sinatra sold Reprise to Warner Bros. Records in 1963, and by the time I began working there in 1996, Reprise was a separate, yet equal label that shared marketing and distribution with Warner. As part of the Alternative Marketing Dept., I worked both Warner and Reprise.

Sadly, I never got to work any Sinatra albums. True, his music wasn’t exactly the focus of my department, but as someone who championed his records at my own record store, I knew there were other fans out there in indie land. But Frank’s last Warner-distributed record was L.A. is My Lady, produced in an overblown, quasi-disco style by Quincy Jones and released on his Qwest Records in 1984. A decade passed before Sinatra returned to Capitol to record the two Duets albums in 1993 and ’94, and most fans consider them a somewhat lacking coda to a mostly-remarkable discography .

In fact, there was only one day during my two and a half years at Warner when Sinatra was a priority, and it was not a good day. On the morning of Friday, May 16, 1998, I awoke to find Rob standing over my bed, a strange look on his face. I wasn’t exactly concerned about a high heel impaling my eye (and not just because Rob wasn’t a transvestite), but I knew something had to be up.

“Bad news…” Rob announced, in a somewhat flat tone. “… Sinatra’s dead.”

“Fuck,” I responded, and climbed out of bed to get ready to go work for the company that, for many years, was synonymous with this musical legend.

I naturally assumed that the reception area at the office would be playing nothing but Sinatra’s Reprise catalogue all day long. This was a foolish and naive assumption. When I arrived at my job, not only was Frank not playing, most of the front office staff didn’t even know the man had founded the company. When I filled in this gaping and unforgivable knowledge hole, they agreed that we should be playing Sinatra… except nobody had any of his CDs on hand. Disgusted, I stomped to my office and pulled a few of Frank’s Reprise CDs from my cabinet and took them back to reception.

There were a few people in the office who were keenly aware of the importance of this passing, in the contexts of both our workplace and the world in general. Gregg Geller was the head of Warner Archives, which oversaw most of our reissues. Gregg had a storied history at numerous labels as an A&R man and producer and I would often come upstairs to his office just to hang out, listening to his war stories from the past, discussing what our dream reissues would be, lamenting the changing nature of the industry. I kept hoping for the day that Gregg would ask me to come work with him, but there just wasn’t enough interest in archiving at Warner / Reprise to necessitate more staff than Gregg and his assistant.

After setting the front office straight, I went up to Gregg’s office to relate the sad tale of reception’s ignorance and do some commiseration. In another, better era, we’d have pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and toasted the Chairman of the Board right there, but drinking in the office in the corporate environment of the 1990s was a no-no.

So I had to wait for lunch.

When noon rolled around, I walked over to 46th and Eighth, to McHale’s, an old-school dive bar to meet Rob and our friend John (another fan) for a few whiskeys in honor of this man whose music and style had such an impact on us. That evening, the lights on the Empire State Building reflected the blues in the night and I couldn’t help but think about how, regardless of how long it had been since he had been a dominant force in pop culture, with the passing of Frank Sinatra, the world was suddenly a different place.

By the autumn of 1998, I had begun moonlighting as a bartender at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, where I met A.J., a young lady who had recently moved to Hoboken from Los Angeles. I couldn’t shake the notion that I knew her from somewhere. And then one day it hit me: it was from books by Nancy Sinatra about her father’s life and career. A.J. was in those books; she was Nancy’s other daughter.

This was not the reason that I eventually asked A.J. out on a date. I was not wooed by her pedigree; I simply thought she was attractive and interesting, even before I realized that she was the sister of the underage girl I bought a beer for in Lancaster three years earlier. But, honestly, how could it not come up?

We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York City, and as we walked in—what are the odds—Sinatra was playing on the jukebox. And so, with the door opened, we talked about his music, and I told her my story of the day Frank Sinatra died, at one point getting so wrapped up in my own tale that I almost forgot I was talking about her grandfather. She told me some stories about growing up with Frank and how odd it was to have to share her mourning with the entire world.

I think it became quickly obvious to both A.J. and me that we were best suited to be friends. I may have liked A.J. for herself, but let’s face it, I was, to a certain extent, obsessed with her family. That would’ve eventually gotten weird. Heck, for all I know it may have gotten weird before the check came. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, I lose perspective.

Allowing for individual perspective is one of my guiding philosophies. I try my best to not conflate “favorite” with “best,” at least in most cases. I can accept contrary opinions like, say, George Reeves was a better Superman than Christopher Reeve, or Goodfellas is a superior mob film to The Godfather, even if I think both positions are cuckoo.

However, there is a firm exception to that allowance, and it’s that Frank Sinatra was the greatest singer of all time. Period. If one ignores the personal / political baggage (which certainly contributed to Sinatra’s image, but is—or should be—irrelevant), and judges the man solely on his contributions to music, it’s impossible to accept the thought that there was ever anyone who imbued the songs he sang with more life, energy, or emotion; His interpretations remain the iconic standards against which all comers inevitably pale. His best albums remain as vital and relevant as the day they were released.

And yet, despite the size of my Sinatra collection, despite the depths of my adoration of the music and appreciation of the man, I still don’t feel like I can claim any kind of “ownership” to Sinatra (the way I can with the rock bands I grew up with) precisely because I wasn’t there to experience it as it happened. I will always be a second class fan of the Chairman, which kinda makes me wish they’d hurry up and invent time machines. I really wanna go catch the Summit in Chicago in 1962.

As for those of you who don’t think Frank was all that and a bag of whiskey, I won’t say that you’re wrong so much as you probably just haven’t figured it out yet. Hopefully, you will. Frank may have made it one for his baby and one for the road many moons ago, but Dean Martin’s sage description of his power rings true to this day: it’s still Frank Sinatra’s world; And we still just live in it.
from the (hopefully) forthcoming book, COLLECTOR'S EDITION: CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE by and © Karl Heitmueller Jr. 

1 comment:

hearsmusic said...

Release the book Karl! You're a great storyteller. And not just because I like reading about the bygone days of BBC, a favorite haunt of my late teens and 20s.